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The super power of understanding that context is everything

The super power of understanding that context is everything


I do not fear truth. I welcome it. But I wish all of my facts to be in their proper context.

Gordon B. Hinckley

Context is everything. And I do not say that just because I am a social psychologist. Context is truly everything and it amazes me when people do not get that. There is not set universal and no true set of truths that are devoid of context.  I try explaining that to people; especially people I work with.

You would be amazed at the number of times I am asked to make a decision on a daily basis without being given the full picture. I cannot, in good conscious or any conscious frankly, provide an answer without knowing the why and how we got to that point. Some people just skip ahead to wanting a straight up answer and get frustrated when I note there is no such thing.

If I had a magical super power it would be to automatically know the context of everything. Or at least, be able to be a fly on the wall back in time to see the situations that have transpired before the current moment.  It is hard relying on people to provide context these days. Everything is in such “fast mode” that interactions are sped through as if they were a Starbucks drive through.  There have been innumerable times, individuals come into my office and ask for a decision to be made in the moment. They rush in in a hurried state of mind and words are coming out of their mouths that I do not believe they themselves have control over. I then ask them to slow down and provide me the why and how. At which point individuals usually look a bit perplexed taking them some time to realize that I probably have no clue what they are talking about. At this point, when they realize they need to slow down, often they super slow down providing way too much context including what they had for breakfast.  I am being totally serious on that last bit.

Our streams of discourse these days are swinging pendulums between too much (needless) information and not enough. We have become, as a society, unable to discern what is needed in a conservation, meeting or general interaction. Perhaps the fact that we like bulleted documents and send 140 character text messages have taken away our ability to gauge the adequateness of the information we provide.  Has technology created interactions devoid of context and are we doomed to live without knowing the true meaning of our conversations?

At this point, technology may be able to bring back context, ironically enough.  For instance, we may need Google to provide a context lens through its Google Glasses. When someone comes to us with a decision to make, we can use the glasses to peer at them and see the actions that led to that moment.  Have you ever seen the science fiction television show called Continuum? There is a bit of that as the cop tried to catch the bad guys-although she comes to realize the definition of “bad guys” is entirely dependent on context.  And at some point, she then qualifies as the bad guy.  Yes, even who we are and how we define ourselves needs a context. We are who we are depending on the moment, who is around us and what we are doing.  There are many facets to our being and without context we are then nothing but a walking zombie.

If we do not know the context, we cannot be sure that those things we believe to know are in actuality true. Don’t just get statements from people and accept them in the moment. There is always a “why” and “how” that is needed to be truly in the know.

Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.

Anthony Bourdain



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